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Romans 1:16-17

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

Why is Paul not ashamed of the gospel? It is because the gospel is God’s power that saves everyone, whether Jews or Gentiles, who believe it (v. 16). Then why is the gospel God’s saving power? It is because God’s righteousness is unveiled in the gospel to anyone who believes (v. 17). What does Paul mean by “the righteousness of God”? A proper understanding of this short phrase will determine how we understand Paul’s doctrine of Justification. Despite the tendency in NT scholarship to understand “the righteousness of God” as “God’s saving power” and to regard “righteousness” as “God’s covenant faithfulness,” the phrase ought to be understood as the believer’s right status before God.

Righteousness Is a Gift from God

Martin Luther describes how he first understood the phrase “the righteousness of God” as a Roman Catholic monk (“Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works” [1545]):

I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God” (iustitia Dei), which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust. But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.

The more Luther thought about God as the righteous judge who condemns sinners, the more he was compelled to run away from this just, wrathful God. Yet, he kept trying to understand the phrase in its context:

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.

Luther realized that “the righteousness of God” is a gift from God that renders sinners acceptable in God’s sight. The phrase does not refer to God’s distributive justice by which He judges people according to their works. Nor does it mean that the divine righteousness is infused into sinners so that they are internally transformed as righteous people. Rather, by faith in the gospel, God declares sinners righteous in His sight. This declaration is not a legal fiction but a real verdict.

Stephen Westerholm (Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 353) identifies this act of God as an extraordinary meaning of righteousness. In an ordinary law court, the doer of the law will be declared righteous, and the violator of the law will be declared guilty (cf. Rom. 2:13). In Paul, however, God declares the latter to be in the right if he believes in the gospel. Such a verdict is extraordinary because it violates the normal and just procedure of judgment. In Paul’s logic, of course, God does not violate any standard of justice. Jesus Christ, the perfect substitution, became a “propitiation” and a “curse” for sinners (Rom. 3:21–26; Gal. 3:10–14; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). Through this procedure, God does not only justify sinners but he himself is proved to be righteous (Rom. 3:26).

In the Cross of Christ, God’s Saving and Judging Righteousness Meet

Paul elucidates the meaning of today’s text in Romans 3:21-26, and verses 25-26 is especially relevant to our study:

Whom [Jesus Christ] God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

Un until verses 25-26, Paul has reasoned that all people, Jews or Gentiles, are sinners and they can only obtain God’s righteousness by faith in the gospel apart from works. In verse 25, Paul argues that God offered Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice to satisfy His wrath and to wipe away sin. Why? God wanted to demonstrate His judging righteousness which was called into question because He had passed over former sins without dealing with them. Through the death of Jesus, God demonstrates that His goodness and holy standard for sin have not been compromised. In the cross of Christ, God’s saving and judging righteousness met. God’s holy and righteous punishment for sin was executed at the cross. The divine justice is fully satisfied in that the death of His Son pays fully for human sin. Therefore, those who have faith in Christ’s substitutionary death can now have and enjoy the righteous standing before God. In this scheme, no one can question God’s justice in His saving and forgiving sinners through the gospel of His Son Jesus Christ.

In sum, the gospel reveals God’s righteousness in two major ways. First, those who believe in the gospel receive God’s righteousness or the right status before God so that they can now have and enjoy the right relationship with God (cf. Rom 5:1). God’s righteousness is given to us as a gift. Second, God demonstrates His own righteousness by the death of His Son who took the place of condemnation for sinners who believe in the gospel. Through the message of the gospel, God does not only declare us righteous but also prove Himself to be righteous before the world.

Discipleship Questions:

  1. What is the gospel?
  2. Why is the gospel God’s saving power? (see the intro)
  3. Explain how God gives His righteousness to us as a gift. Discuss whether we are made righteous or declared righteous (consult 1-b/c).
  4. Explain how God’s saving and judging righteousness meet at the cross (consult 2-d/e). I.e. what aspect of the cross demonstrates that God is righteous in justifying and saving us who deserve hell?
  5. Read Romans 5:1-5. What are the results of our justification?